Vol. 28, No.12 Week of March 19, 2023
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Willow OK’d

Click here to go to the full PDF version of this issue, with any maps, photos or other artwork that appears in some of the articles.

Option of 4th pad dropped; 68,000 acres relinquished; Arctic drilling ban

Kristen Nelson

Petroleum News

No new Arctic Ocean leasing, but the long-planned Willow project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska can move forward - unless it is stopped in court.

On March 12, the Biden administration announced what it called “sweeping action to complete protections of the entire U.S. Arctic Ocean from any further oil and gas leasing.” In addition, the U.S. Department of Interior said it was “preparing new rules to provide maximum protection to millions of acres of lands in the western Arctic, including the area around Teshekpuk Lake.”

(See map in the online issue PDF)

On March 13, Interior issued a record of decision for Willow, denying two of the five drill sites proposed by ConocoPhillips Alaska and dropping the option to consider future development of one of the dropped drill sites. ConocoPhillips relinquished leases it holds on some 68,000 acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, site of the Willow project, with a map showing the acreage as immediately north and south of the Bear Tooth unit. Interior said the relinquished leases reduce Bear Tooth’s footprint by one-third.

On March 14, lawsuits were filed in opposition to the project.

Arctic Ocean closed

As a runup to the Willow announcement, Interior said March 12 that President Biden, with authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, “is withdrawing approximately 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea” from future oil and gas leasing, completing protections for the entire Beaufort Sea Planning Area, and building upon President Obama’s 2016 withdrawal of the Chukchi Sea Planning Area and the majority of the Beaufort Sea.

Interior also said it is initiating rulemaking for ecologically sensitive areas in NPR-A and will consider additional protections for more than 13 million acres designated as special areas, with future oil and gas leasing and industrial development to be limited in the Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Uplands, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon and Peard Bay special areas.

The shape of Willow

Interior issued its record of decision for Willow March 13, denying two of the five drill sites proposed by ConocoPhillips and removing an option, in preferred alternative E in the final supplemental environmental impact statement for the project released Feb. 1, which would have allowed consideration of a fourth drill site.

ConocoPhillips relinquished 68,000 acres of leases, which Interior said will create an additional buffer near calving grounds and migratory routes for the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd.

ConocoPhillips said in a March 13 statement that it has “completed extensive preparations with key contractors and expects to immediately initiate gravel road construction activities.” It also said it “continues to review the ROD and will advance internal approval processes towards a Final Investment Decision.”

Peak production is estimated at 180,000 barrels per day and the project is expected to create 2,500 construction jobs and an estimated 300 long-term jobs.

“This was the right decision for Alaska and our nation,” said Ryan Lance, ConocoPhillips chairman and CEO. “Willow fits within the Biden Administration’s priorities on environmental and social justice, facilitating the energy transition and enhancing our energy security all while creating good union jobs and providing benefits to Alaska Native communities.”

Cheering the project on

A joint statement from the Inupiat Community of the North Slope, North Slope Borough and Arctic Slope Regional Corp. said: “The elected regional Inupiat leadership of the North Slope would like to thank the Biden administration for its leadership on Alaska’s Willow Project. … As the ROD recognizes, for the North Slope, the Willow Project represents a new opportunity to ensure our indigenous, Alaska Native communities’ ten thousand years of history has a viable future.” The statement noted the project is expected to generate $1.25 billion for the North Slope Borough and $2.5 billion to the NPR-A Impact Mitigation Grant Program, “funding that will provide basic services like education, fire protection, law enforcement, subsistence wildlife research, and more.”

Alaska’s congressional delegation welcomed the decision to approve Willow, which it has strongly supported.

“This was Alaska at its very best, with ConocoPhillips, Alaska Native leaders, labor leaders, our unanimous State Legislature, and so many more joining with the delegation to do everything we could to make this happen,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Sen. Dan Sullivan said that in addition to being important for Alaska, “This decision is also crucial for our national security and environment. Producing much-needed American energy in Alaska with the world’s highest environmental standards and lowest emissions enhances the global environment.”

Sullivan said that with the ROD issued, “we are prepared to defend this decision. … We will do so by working closely with the same Alaska stakeholders who brought as this far.”

“Today, the people of Alaska were heard,” said Rep. Mary Peltola. “After years of consistent, determined advocacy for this project, from people all across the state and from every walk of life, the Willow Project is finally moving forward.”

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy noted the jobs and oil the project is expected to produce, and the generation of at least $8 billion in revenue for federal, state and local governments.

Commenting on the Biden administration’s announcement that it intends to prohibit oil and gas development on nearly 16 million acres, while Willow will have a footprint of some 500 acres, Dunleavy said: “It’s disgraceful that the Biden administration thinks that this is a compromise that will benefit America.” He said taking Alaska production off the table “will just shift the market and give leverage to producers in countries that don’t have our high standards for the environment and human rights.”

The lawsuits

Two lawsuits were filed March 14 against the ROD.

The first was filed by Trustees for Alaska on behalf of Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, Alaska Wilderness League, Environment American, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society against BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Interior.

A second suit was filed by Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation groups.

Both seek to block Willow.

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